Ilaria Borrelli: Raising Awareness About Humanitarian Issues Through Cinema

Italian filmmaker Ilaria Borrelli

Italian filmmaker Ilaria Borrelli

Recently L’Italo-Americano had the pleasure to interview Ilaria Borrelli, the Italian director and main actor of Talking To The Trees, an Italian production which will be released soon in movie theatres across the U.S. 
 
Ilaria Borrelli was born in Naples, but she moved to Rome at the age of 12. The reason why her family moved to the capital city was the Irpinia earthquake, which damaged extensively the neighborhood where Ilaria and her family lived. This tragedy inspired Ilaria to write Tremblings, a novel talking about her personal experience during the shake and the relocation in Rome, which will be published soon.
 
“Maybe, if the earthquake hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done,” said Ilaria, ”theatre school, dramatic art academy in Rome, I wouldn’t have attended it, if I had stayed in Naples; therefore, I often say that the earthquake was an event of good fortune.” While telling her story, Ilaria also argues that being an actress was a coincidence, it was something she was not aiming at. Everything started (when she was) helping a friend of hers review a script for theatre performances, and one day a famous actor overheard Ilaria and (suggested that she try it herself). At that casting, only 18 people out of 900 were accepted, and Ilaria was among those eighteen, and so she began her studies at the dramatic art academy in Rome. After that, she became a theatre and tv actress.
Poster of the film "Talking to the Trees"

Poster of the film "Talking to the Trees"

However, at a certain point Ilaria realized that the characters and stories she was assigned in Italy were not deep enough for her. “I began rewriting these characters when I performed them, and one day one of the directors, who used to get angry at me when I changed the script making those characters appear smarter, told me ‘how about you make your movie after you’re done with mine?’” Those words were eye opening for Ilaria, who had never thought of directing her own movie, and they also came at the right time since she was about to move to New York City to study with Susan Batson, a well-known coach in the Actor Studio. Ilaria was also excited to be a NYU student since some friends of hers were taking screenwriting and film direction classes.
 
Eventually Ilaria left her acting career, after having worked in an important French tv series as well. Ilaria shot her first movie, Mariti In Affitto (Our Italian Husbands) in NYC with Brooke Shields. The movie was initially screened in American movie theatres and later arrived in 120 Italian movie theatres – a large number considering the overall Italian film industry. Ilaria chose to set her second movie, Wine and Kisses, in Italy, starring two well known American actors F. Murray Abraham and Bernadette Peters.
 
However, since Ilaria had her two children, she has become more sensitive to childhood tragedies, and decided to portray them in poetic and delicate way, so that the audience can relate to them better. Before becoming more acquainted with humanitarian issues, Ilaria was aiming at shooting comedies which would be more complicated and interesting than the ones she used to act in. Discovering the brutalities that kids have to suffer in our age combined with the life changing experience of having her own kids made Ilaria change her approach to life, she now feels responsible to tell these stories through movies that can be seen by anybody.
 
Indeed, her latest movie, Talking To The Trees, tells the stories of Mia, a young Italian photographer who travels to Cambodia to surprise her French husband Xavier working there. Mia is longing for the baby she cannot have, but she finds out that Xavier is taking advantage of local child prostitution. Mia attempts to rescue three of these young Cambodian girls forced to prostitute, and they begin their adventure across the country. 

Ilaria Borrelli with Silvia Stefania, Giacomo Sproccati and Vicky Carabini

We report below a part of our interview with Ilaria, which deepens her interest and experience in Cambodia.
 
Q: Where did your interest for Cambodia come from?
B: It all started off with my interest in dealing with child prostitution that had captured my attention and, among the countries where it was mostly developed, there was Cambodia. When I want to deal with such strong themes I need the beauty of the place to have some sort of balance. Cambodia’s natural landscapes are beautiful. Our goal with this movie was to always show the contrast between the horror, the human being is capable of, and the wonderful nature. This  is the power of cinema. Directors like Malik for example show this contrast and create excellent movies.
 
Q: Had you already worked with the people involved in this movie?
B: There are usually seven of us who have been working together for years now. We usually go to the place where we want to film and we instruct local people in order for them to help us. That also enables us to leave them something beyond the opportunity to work with us. We like to keep in touch with those people.
For this movie I personally did not want to choose non-professional girls who had experienced prostitution in their life. It would be immoral to me and I decided to choose girls with a stronger and solid family background.
Paradoxically enough, being used to work with non- professional actors, I found it always more difficult to work with adults than with children.
 
Q: Was it the first time that you had to go so far to shoot a movie?
It was my first time shooting a fiction in a country so far away; we needed professional actors and for this reason we had to instruct and train them.
Wonderful people inhabit Cambodia and that made us reflect upon the fact that in those countries where people are naturally good-natured those human tragedies such as child prostitution are most likely to happen. It seems as if where the people are more “pure” and “naïve” “predators are ready to attack.
I moved from Italy years ago. In my country it is more difficult for women directors like me; moreover, such themes are not actually very often developed and directors tend to show less interest in them than abroad.
In the United Stated and Canada I finally found  a place where my films can actually be distributed and appreciated. California was indeed the birthplace of the great fights for human rights starting in 1968 and it is still a state where such themes find a greater audience.
The movie will finally be distributed in the United States and that makes me really proud.
 
Q: is there a person in particular that comes to your mind when you think of your experience in Cambodia?
B: At the beginning they introduced me to this girl who was born in the Cambodian forest, her father was a warrior of the forest during the Khmer Rouge dictatorship. She was an incredibly smart and intelligent self-taught woman who studied for two hours at night taking advantage of the internet connection. She not only helped me with the locals when I needed an interpreter, she was also an amazing connection with Cambodian culture.
The most moving part of this story was that she fell in love with our Australian camera assistant and now they live together in Sidney.
We had three people from the local mafia arriving on set. This taught us that it was a mistake to shoot a movie in the country where the story is set. Those people thought that we wanted to put down Cambodia and they asked for money.
 
We didn’t have security. That was a huge risk also because of mines from the Khmer Rouge dictatorship still present in the forest. We have been extremely lucky up to the last day of shooting when we found a mine a few feet away from our camera. 
As part of Ilaria’s effort to raise awareness about humanitarian issues through cinema, Talking To The Trees was screened on Oct. 29th at The Karl Anatol Center at California State University, Long Beach. Ilaria hopes that more educational institutions will allow the screening of her film because it is important for youths to be conscious of human tragedies such as child prostitution. 

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